Barriers to disabled scientists and engineers

Jennifer Dyer is the Diversity Programme Leader and Frances Ling is the Diversity Programme Coordinator at the Institute of Physics

On 23 November, the Institute of Physics hosted a highly successful and engaging one-day conference on the barriers to disabled students in science and engineering, It was attended by a wide range of delegates, including staff from professional bodies, academics, HEI disability practitioners and those working in widening participation.

The conference was in follow-up to the Institute’s publication in 2008, Access for All, which provided information to physics departments on how they can better recruit and support their disabled students in all areas of university life, from admissions through to teaching and learning and exams. With the advent of the Equality Act, it was timely for the Institute to kick-start discussions on how disabled people can be better recruited and retained in the sciences and engineering.

Setting out the issues

Our delegates heard from the HE Academy about how inclusion can be embedded at a strategic level, what inclusion really means both to universities and to those individuals working within them and what factors all have to be in place to ensure that inclusion can be truly embedded into both policy and practice.

We then heard from Dr Chris Stonehouse, New College Worcester, about how disabled students can be supported better in the transition from school to university and how schools and universities must work harder to encourage disabled students to aspire to study sciences and engineering. Often many assumptions are made about perceived capabilities and, as a result, many disabled young people have low aspirations in the sciences.

Barbara Waters, former Chief Executive of Skill, highlighted the main issues in the recently-introduced Equality Act and how this has changed the legislative landscape with respect to inclusion of disabled students.

There were a range of workshops on including various groups of people with different impairments in physics. This included a project investigating the limitations of British Sign Language (BSL) when it comes to scientific terminology and developing new terminology within BSL for physics; supporting VI/Blind physics students through the use of better technology; supporting students with Asperger’s in physics; and supporting disabled postgraduates.

Both Emily Roberts from the Royal Society and Hilary Leevers from CaSE presented their work in highlighting better access for disabled scientists, including the CaSE report on Delivering Diversity which makes specific recommendations for supporting disabled people in science, engineering and technology occupations.

The final session of the day was a Panel, looking at how work can be taken forward in this area and what the professional bodies can do to improve access to their various disciplines for disabled people.

Making a difference

CaSE believes that a web-based resource, pulling together all the information and resources for those working with disabled students in the sciences would be of real benefit to the community. This could include information on teaching and learning resources as well as new technologies.

Barbara Waters from Skill wants to ensure that careers advice is aimed appropriately at disabled young people in order that they have the aspiration to study sciences at school and into further and higher education.

Peter Main, from the IOP, believed that the professional bodies can and should be doing more in this area. The STEM professional bodies should be working together to address common barriers and with academics to identify how subject-specific barriers can be overcome. He said that he would be happy for the IOP to lead in developing a collaborative web resource for disabled scientists and engineers – provided other learned societies are willing to join forces.

The conference was extremely positive and our delegates appreciated the opportunity to focus on this important issue for the day. The IOP and CaSE clearly stated that they would be instrumental in ensuring practical outcomes from the meeting, including a web resource and an exploration of building better support networks for scientists and engineers.

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